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1910-2010: A century of ascendance

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Published : 2010-03-29 23:30
Updated : 2010-03-29 23:30






The past hundred years saw Korea rise from a tragic colony to the world`s 13th-largest economy set to host the G20 summit in November this year.
Propelled by a desire to escape poverty and establish a democracy, Koreans became the only people who gained independence after World War II to achieve both industrialization and democratization.
Korea`s national per capita income increased nearly 300-fold from $67 just after the Korean War in 1953 to $19,231 in 2008.
Many attribute the country`s rapid growth to robust exports, government-led development programs and Koreans` strong educational aspirations.
"The biggest factor, in addition to obvious factors such as excellent human resources, was opening up the country. Korea is almost totally dependent on exports, and has been since the start of industrialization," said Sung Han-kyoung, an associate research fellow of Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
"Therefore without the open trade system we have erected over the years, we could not have achieved such industrial and commercial success."
The remarkable accomplishments that have brought Korea to the central global stage didn`t come without pains - perhaps the harshest a nation has suffered in modern history.
In the course of development, Koreans went through a devastating fratricidal war, dictatorial rule and internal conflicts among groups with different priorities on economic growth, national security and civil liberties, part of which still linger on in the Korean society.
Playing host to the G20 summit that will bring together the leaders of the world`s largest economies could serve as an occasion to remind Koreans of what they have achieved over the past century since their country was taken over by Japan.
Korea was formally annexed by Japan in August 1910, five years after Japan designated it as a protectorate and three years after Japan forced King Gojong to abdicate the throne in favor of his frail son.
Throughout the colonial period which lasted until 1945, Koreans relentlessly fought for independence.
When Gojong died in January 1919 with rumors that he was poisoned, sweeping nationalist sentiments triggered a Korean student demonstration in Japan and a Proclamation of Independence on March 1 by a small group of leaders in Seoul.
Men and women from all walks of life took to the streets for independence rallies nationwide in what became known as the March First Movement. Thousands of Koreans were killed by Japanese soldiers and police that day.
The pro-liberation movements led to the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in April 1919, which organized liberation efforts and resistance against Japanese control.
The Japanese governor-general of Korea intensified economic exploitation and cultural oppression in the 1930s.
Japan sought to exterminate Korean culture by banning the use of the Korean language, forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names, destroying or stealing Korean cultural artifacts and prohibiting newspapers published in Korean.
Economically, colonialists plundered most of Korea`s farmland and virtually all industries were owned by Japanese corporations. Increased rice exports to Japan made Korean farmers become sharecroppers or migrate to Manchuria or Japan.
Japan turned Korea into a wartime supply base upon the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II.
During World War II, tens of thousands of Korean men were conscripted into Japan`s military and around 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and Japan, were made sex slaves for the Japanese army.
Japan`s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in August 1945 led to Korea`s liberation and the country`s subsequent division into two occupation zones. The United States governed south of the 38th parallel and the Soviet Union took control of the other half of the Korean Peninsula.
As the Soviets and Americans failed to agree on the implementation of a Joint Trusteeship over Korea, two separate governments were established in the South and North.
The Republic of Korea was founded in the South on Aug. 15, 1948 with Syngman Rhee as the first president. The ROK was approved by the United Nations in December that year as the only legal government of Korea.
In the meantime, the communist regime established by Kim Il-sung in North Korea began preparing for war.
The North Korean forces infiltrated the 38th parallel before dawn on June 25, 1950 and occupied Seoul in just three days.
The course of war shifted with the commitment of forces by the United States and the United Nations to support the South, and then with China`s intervention on the North`s side.
The war came to a halt on July 27, 1953, when an armistice was signed at Panmunjom.
Twenty-one member countries of the United Nations had contributed armed forces or medical units to South Korea by then. The Soviet Union also dispatched air force divisions and provided arms and supplies for North Korea and China.
The worn-torn country fell under the dictatorial rule of President Syngman Rhee, who pushed through constitutional amendments to prolong his presidency.
As the autocratic Rhee administration grew more corrupt, rigging election results to make Rhee`s close aide Lee Gi-bung vice president in 1960, student demonstrations began. Public anger climaxed when a high school student involved in the protests was found dead with a grenade penetrated through his eyes.
A nationwide popular uprising called the April 19 Revolution erupted, during which 142 students were killed by the police. The nation`s first upheaval for democracy led to Rhee`s resignation.
Korea then briefly turned to a parliamentary cabinet system where the president plays only a nominal role.
The new government under Yun Po-sun as the president and Chang Myon as the prime minister, however, was soon toppled by a military coup d`etat led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961.
The junta focused on restoring law and order and rebuilding the economy. Park launched an industrialization program based on exports. Huge incentives for exports - preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans, import privileges, permission to borrow from foreign sources and tax benefits - were offered to businesses.
Park also normalized relations with Japan in 1965, bringing in Japanese funds in the form of loans and controversially, compensation for the damages suffered during the colonial period.
The government received massive loans and aid from overseas to develop heavy and chemical industries, investing in steel, machinery, shipbuilding, electronics, chemicals and nonferrous metals.
While Park is usually credited for Korea`s rapid industrialization and export-oriented growth, his era was tarnished with suppression of personal freedom and inhuman tortures of opponents by the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, which was created by Park.
Park amended the constitution three times during his 18-year rule. The Yusin Constitution adopted in 1972 guaranteed an indefinite presidential term.
Less than two months after Park was assassinated by his aide and KCIA director in October 1979, a military coup led by Lieutenant Major Chun Doo-hwan took place on Dec. 12.
When Chun proclaimed martial law over the entire country in May 1980, citizens of Gwangju in South Jeolla Province stood up against the junta in what became known as the Gwangju Democratization Movement between May 18 and 27.
Chun ordered military troops to quell the protests and nearly 200 people were killed during the process.
Chun became president in August in an indirect election where he was the only candidate, and revised the Constitution to shift to a single seven-year presidential term.
Restriction of democracy and corruption under Chun`s regime brought about another popular upheaval.
Chun Doo-hwan declared in 1987 he would hand over power to one of his military supporters based on an indirect election, arousing public anger which was fueled after the police was found to have tortured a college student to death.
Anti-dictatorship demonstrations dubbed the June Democratization Uprising spread across the nation in June that year, and resulted in a constitutional revision to hold the first direct presidential election in 30 years.
Roh Tae-woo, then ruling party`s presidential candidate named by Chun, was elected by a narrow margin as votes were split between two leading opposition contenders Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.
Under Roh, Korea successfully hosted the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and China.
After stepping down, Roh and Chun were put on trial for bribery. Both were convicted in 1996 of treason and mutiny for orchestrating the 1979 coup and the 1980 Gwangju massacre and corruption, but were pardoned in the following year by then president Kim Young-sam.
Towards the end of Kim`s term in 1997, Korea was hit by the Asian financial crisis and major companies went bankrupt. Excess corporate debts, an insolvent banking sector and mismanagement of foreign exchange were among the causes of the crisis.
Korea took out the largest ever loan from the International Monetary Fund which it completed repaying in less than four years in 2001.
The incoming Kim Dae-jung administration pushed for major financial and corporate restructuring as well as labor adjustments to overcome the crisis.
The liberal president also introduced the "sunshine policy" which sought reconciliation with North Korea with the ultimate goal of reunification.
In June 2000, Kim met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in the first-ever inter-Korean summit.
The Koreas adopted the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration which laid the grounds for closer bilateral exchanges and economic cooperation. The second inter-Korean summit was held between President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il in 2007.
The 10 years of liberal administrations ended as President Lee Myung-bak came to power in early 2008 with a tougher stance on North Korea and a strong commitment to economic development.
Korea is now showing the fastest recovery among OECD member countries from the global economic crisis triggered by the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown.
This year, Korea is expected to play a central role in forming key global economic policies as the chair and host of the G20 summit in November.
The summit will be the largest international forum ever to be held in Seoul, drawing the leaders of more than 25 countries and major international organizations.
The Korean government hopes the hosting of such a high-profile meeting upgrades its status in the international community.
Issues including post-crisis management of the global economy are expected to be on the agenda at the world`s premier economic forum in Seoul.

By Kim So-hyun